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Review: I, Daniel Blake (2017)

I, Daniel Blake (2017)

Directed by: Ken Loach

Premise: Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is an Englishman who has suffered a heart attack. His doctors forbid Daniel from going back to work and he navigates a confusing bureaucracy to get disability benefits. Along the way he befriends a single mother (Hayley Squires) and her children.

What Works: Ken Loach is a political filmmaker working in the United Kingdom. He alternates between documentaries and feature films and Loach’s work is often provocative as seen in movies like Land and Freedom and The Wind that Shakes the Barley and Jimmy’s Hall. Loach’s most recent feature film, I, Daniel Blake, calls upon many of the political themes and naturalistic styles of his other work but it is also more concentrated on character. Paradoxically, I, Daniel Blake is more powerful as a polemical work than some of his other movies precisely because it avoids lecturing the audience and allows viewers to make connections for themselves. The movie’s greatest strength is its cast. The title character of I, Daniel Blake is played by Dave Johns. Daniel is a good man with a strong work ethic and a clear sense of decency. He’s also very likable. Johns portrays Daniel with dignity and makes his struggles accessible. The character is a widower who works with his hands and his little use for computers. That puts him at a disadvantage in a world where everything, and especially government services, has gone digital. Daniel befriends Katie, played by Hayley Squires, a single mother who has relocated her family and attempts to raise her children while struggling to make ends meet. There is a curious contrast in I, Daniel Blake. The friendship between the various characters epitomizes the values of community as these people do things for each other and support one another. Meanwhile the government services absolutely fail them. And I, Daniel Blake’s portrayal of that failure is infuriating and ultimately heartbreaking. Without resorting to histrionics or becoming didactic, I, Daniel Blake assails the way mismanaged government services can actually keep people in poverty. The social message is almost entirely embedded into the drama so that it just passes over the viewer and we internalize what the filmmakers are trying to say because we are so invested in these characters.

What Doesn’t: A few of the edits in I, Daniel Blake are clumsy. The filmmakers fade to black several times in ways that look amateurish and are not in keeping with the visual style of the rest of the movie. The picture ends abruptly and in a way that spells out the social message. Most of I, Daniel Blake avoids political grandstanding but the filmmakers can’t help themselves in the ending. And the final message seems inconsistent with the themes of the rest of the picture. I, Daniel Blake is about the way bureaucracy gets in the way of the social services that citizens need. It is a relevant point and for most of the movie it’s well dramatized. But the filmmakers insist upon the value and dignity of the individual citizen and that bureaucracy ought to serve the people while the rest of the picture suggests that isn’t going to happen.

DVD extras: Trailer, deleted scenes, documentaries, a commentary track, and essays.

Bottom Line: I, Daniel Blake is an effective drama with great performances. The film makes its argument without belaboring the point and tells an engaging and, at times, upsetting story.

Episode: #698 (May 13, 2018)